Backyard Buddies
Purple Swamphen

Photo: R Nicolai

Purple Swamphen

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If you think you have seen a purple chicken, chances are you've actually spotted a Purple Swamphen, Porphyrio porphyrio.

The Purple Swamphen is a large waterhen with a distinctive heavy red bill and forehead shield. They have red eyes and a deep blue head and breast, with black upper parts and wings. In bright sunlight the plumage shines with an intense blue sheen.

Long reddish legs with long slender unwebbed toes help it walk and feed in shallow water. They have a white undertail that is exposed when they flick their tail up and down.

You are likely to find these hens around the edges of freshwater swamps, lakes and creeks surrounded by dense reeds and rushes. Here they can find food, build nests for breeding and find protection from danger.

You may also stumble upon these birds in local parks with ponds. They are common throughout Australia's east and north, with an isolated population in the south-west.

Purple Swamphens are frequently spotted on the roadside and often crossing the road. As they like to be near water, the water in roadside ditches attracts them. Purple swamphens are in fact highly adaptable to changing environments - they can run, swim, fly and hide from predators.

They are omnivores, eating a wide variety of both plants and small animals including seeds, insects, frogs and aquatic vegetation. They will also eat eggs and small mammals and have the strength to pull up reeds and feed on the soft stems.

Purple Swamphens live in large extended family groups, whereas most birds live in pairs with only the current season's chicks. Breeding can take place at any time, but is mainly from July to December. They lay an average of 5 eggs and share the responsibilities of sitting on the eggs, feeding the young and chasing away predators.

Generally Purple Swamphens will retreat away from humans. However, they are very territorial during breeding season, and may even bite. The hens form a large nest bowl from trampled reeds and rushes and line it with softer reeds and grass. Look out for a platform of reeds just above the water surrounded by vegetation as this may be a Purple Swamphen nest.


If your backyard backs onto a freshwater creek, make sure you leave a lot of vegetation around the water. This is not only attractive to Purple Swamphens but will also attract many other buddies and help control erosion in heavy falls.

Slow down when driving after rain if you know that Purple Swamphens live near you.

Did you know?

Purple Swamphens are found in many parts of the world and have many different names? They are also known as the African Purple Swamphen, Purple Moorhen, Purple Gallinule, Purple Coot or the Pekeko.

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Dr Ricky Spencer – Lead Scientist Murray River Turtle Project, NSW

Photo: OEH